When airlines can’t match suitcases with owners, they sometimes send them to auction houses. Brendan Cole went to the sales – and met the people who bid on passengers’ unclaimed items.

After a flight where reconstituted food and recirculated air have slowed metabolisms to the speed of a baggage carousel, it’s no wonder travellers want to get as quickly as possible to their hotel or home. It makes it all the more frustrating when that mesmerising carousel seems reluctant to reunite the bleary-eyed with their Samsonite –and for some people, it never does.

Still, given the sheer volume of bags passing through the world’s airports, an average success rate of 993 items per thousand eventually reaching their owners may not sound terrible. But those seven orphan bags per thousand add up, and they have to go somewhere.

In the UK, that’s where auction houses step in. If the bag is auctioned off, the auction house takes a commission from the sale; it passes the rest of the proceeds on to the relevant airline. In Britain, four main houses procure and sell this lost luggage.

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To market, to market

One such auction house is Tooting Greasby’s. Every other Tuesday, around 150 people pay a £100 deposit for a laminated number, which gives them the right to bid. At the back of the small room lie 20 suitcases and hold-alls. Some are new, some are battered, but all are the focus of the bidders’ attention.

On a recent Tuesday, umbrellas, walking aids, children’s scooters and even disposable nappies sat next to the luggage – all detritus that had been either unclaimed, left behind during security checks or simply lost in departures. There was even a lawn edge trimmer and an antique Moroccan-style ceiling light.

“It’s amazing what people bring back from their holidays,” auctioneer Christine Sachett, who has been tapping the gavel here for more than four decades, tells the prospective buyers present.

In some countries, the luggage gets destroyed. In the UK, the airlines tend to send them to auction – Nick Gates

When a passenger reports their baggage missing, the World Tracer system, used by all major airlines, kicks into action. It tries to trace the bag by matching the tag number, colour and brand to the details of bags held on the massive digital database.

Ideally, it unites the right bag with the right owner. But sometimes – in one out of every 3,000 cases, to be exact – it never does.

“Airlines actively look for the owners for up to 100 days. After that, the bag is considered to be lost,” says Nick Gates, director of SITA, an air transport communications company that is owned by the industry. “By then, the airline has done everything it can. It may be because there is no label or anything in the bag that can identify the owner. What happens to the bag depends on the country. In some countries, the luggage gets destroyed. In the UK, the airlines tend to send them to auction.”

You have to be quick – and you have to choose without knowing what’s inside

Here at Greasby’s, the first hour sees relatively low prices for other goods, which include stolen property courtesy of the police, items from companies that have gone out of business, or simply goods that private sellers want to offload. But the room springs to life when the airport lots come up for auction.

The opening price is usually around £10, and the auctioneer’s machine-gun delivery sees the amounts dart up in increments of £2 or £5. Many are sold within 30 seconds. You have to be quick. And you have to choose without knowing what’s inside: although bidders can look at the locked suitcases prior to the auction, no peeking inside is allowed.

Rolling the dice

But despite the hype, the chances of swimming in Rolexes and Gucci with your newfound purchase are slim. Greasby’s says any valuables, such as jewellery or electronic items, are taken out of the bags and sold separately in different lots at the same auction. (Designer-label clothes and shoes, though, are left in).

That doesn’t mean bidding on the cases isn’t worth the effort. According to those gathered here, good money can be made from re-selling the items from a simple suitcase of clothes, although the goal is to get a case that has been lost on the outgoing trip. Still, an incoming case is nothing that a decent dose of detergent can’t sort out.

Filmmaker Meli Iconic-Alonzi from London’s Acton Town has been to these auctions four times, and she successfully bid for two suitcases, one for £18 and one for £30, plus a buyer’s premium of 18% and VAT. She often buys lots for productions or friends who work in costume departments, she says. But the quality of what’s inside, of course, is not guaranteed.

Luck, though, seemed to have found 17-year-old Nicole Moss, who is now the proud owner of Chanel shoes and a Chanel dress

“From a previous experience, I have got suitcases full of cheap towels and not even charity shops wanted to take them,” she says. “You can’t check inside at all, so whatever is inside is down to luck.”

Luck, though, seemed to have found 17-year-old Nicole Moss of Tooting, who is at her first auction – and is now the proud owner of Chanel shoes and a Chanel dress. “I don’t understand why people leave such nice things,” she says.

From whiskey to wedding rings

Another place the lost luggage could end up is Bristol Commercial Valuers and Auctioneers. The process there is different, says associate director Sam Ewing. For one, the auction house allows prospective buyers to go through the luggage before the sale. For another, he says, “We go through everything with a fine-toothed comb. The lots are all picked up; we re-sort them into suitable lots.” High-value items like jewellery and electronics are sold on their own.

Items that were left behind or confiscated in security – like smart phones, vodka and cigarettes – go under the hammer, too

At the Bristol auction house, it isn’t just left luggage, either. Before the suitcases are auctioned, items left in security that were either unclaimed or confiscated go under the hammer. These include smart phones, belts, watches, vintage champagne, bottles of whiskey, vodka and even cartons of cigarettes, whose health warnings are in languages displaying the origin of their purchase and, presumably, the location of the owner’s holiday – Bulgaria, Poland, Spain.

Among the jewellery at this auction was a man’s well-worn wedding ring, perhaps left in haste to make a final boarding call and too small or difficult to trace.

Alex Fennell from Bristol has spent £750 on suitcases whose contents he expects to sell online within a month at double or even triple the price. “For me, this is a business. The buzz is that you can rummage through some things, the buzz of hoping to find that hidden gem in there,” he says. “Sometimes you get dirty underwear.”

Despite their enthusiastic attendees, these auctions might not be around forever. Tracking technology means that airports are not losing bags like they used to – in fact, they lose half the number they did eight years ago.

Sometimes, you just get dirty underwear

Even so, if you fly enough, you do feel that it is only a matter of time before your beloved bag ends up at auction house like these.

However, there is one foolproof way to ensure your bag doesn’t go missing on your next holiday: fly to Osaka, Japan. Kansai International Airport has not lost a single item of baggage since it opened in 1994.

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